The Epistle to the Hebrews
Like the other NT epistles, Hebrews ends with words of personal encouragement and greetings. But it lacks the formal opening of an epistle. There is no statement of sender, recipient, or purpose. Rather, most of the epistle reads like a homily, a sermon.
The author is unknown. Already in the early 200s, Origen wrote: “But who wrote Hebrews? Only God knows.” The older English Bible versions attribute Hebrews to Paul, but there is insufficient evidence to prove this.
The recipients are a church (or churches) with a strong background in the Old Testament—hence the name, “Hebrews”. They are facing persecution and expect to be persecuted even more. The epistle is meant to encourage them, to strengthen their faith, and to direct them to the heart of their faith: Jesus Christ.
The theme of Hebrews is the superiority of Jesus Christ over all things, especially over all of the Old Testament prophets, rituals, and revelation. The epistle can be summarized by a list of statements, each starting in: “Jesus is greater than …”
Jesus is greater than the angels
Angels are powerful, heavenly beings, and first-century Jewish were very aware of that. But the author of Hebrews points out that they are no more than servants. In contrast, Jesus is the Son, the heir of all that belongs to God. (Heb. 1)
This also means that the gospel of Jesus is greater than the Old Testament Law (Torah). By Jewish tradition, the Law had been given by angels. But the New Testament message of salvation was personally delivered by the Son of God and attested to by the Holy Spirit. Therefore it is superior even to the Law of Moses. (Heb. 2)
In the same vain, Hebrews makes the point that Moses, the great prophet-leader of Israel, is called “a faithful servant in the household of God”; but Jesus is the faithful son of that household. Likewise, Joshua led the Israelites to a Promised Land, but Jesus goes ahead of his followers into God’s ultimate rest. (Heb. 3-4)
Two types of priests
Heb. 5:10 etc. call Jesus “a (high) priest after the order of Melchizedek”. This is based on Psalm 110, which the early Christians identified as a prophetic Psalm about the ascension of Jesus. Thus we have a picture of the Lord Jesus ministering as a priest in the sanctuary of heaven.
Why a priest “after the order of Melchizedek”? Melchizedek is a mysterious figure in the time of Abraham (Gen. 14). He is identified as “priest of God Most High”, and he blesses Abraham.
The author of Hebrews picks up on two elements: Melchizedek was a priest, even though he did not belong to the family of Aaron; and Melchizedek’s priesthood is superior, because the superior blesses the inferior.
In the same way, Jesus’ priesthood is “Melchizedekian” rather than “Aaronic”: Jesus is not priest because of his lineage, but because of his own spiritual strength; and Jesus’ priesthood supersedes the entire priestly system of the Old Testament and all that belongs to it.
The Old Testament priests served in a man-made tent or temple, but Jesus serves in the heavenly, “original” sanctuary. The Old Testament priests brought animal blood that could not truly atone for sin, but Jesus brings his own perfect blood. The Old Testament sacrifices were brought daily and annually, but Jesus’ sacrifice is sufficient to be brought once and for all.
Encouragement and warning
Toward the end of Hebrews, we find the well-known chapter, Hebrews 11. It underscores the nature of faith: it is certainly of things that you cannot see (yet). Many Old Testament examples are given of people who sacrificed everything for future hope. Following this “cloud of witnesses”, Christians have an even better motivation to imitate Jesus, to fight sin and to put up with suffering.
In Heb. 12 we find a last, powerful reasoning from the inferior Old Testament to the superior New Testament. When God declared the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, it was a fearful event; and people who disrespected the Lord were punished with death. But now, in the New Testament era, God has declared his final word in Jesus Christ, the Son. It is all the more important now to take him seriously!